Spike Lee disregards many aspects of the Hollywood establishment and makes
films his way and for good reason. Because he is such a socially aware film
maker, his subject matter cannot fall victim to the studio system because it
simply wouldn't come off as credible. I've liked and recommended every
Spike Lee film I've ever seen, including one from 1996 entitled 'Get on the
Bus' about a group of African-American men who drive across America to
attend the million man march in Washington D.C. A small film of large
academic proportions, it is one of Lee's most under rated films and in many
ways is as good or better than his masterpiece, 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
or his runner-up 'Malcolm X' (1992). 1995's 'Clockers' stands out as one of
Lee's most lethal film of the 90's and all of the films I've mentioned have
one thing in common: focus. Unfortunately, Lee's latest film doesn't have
'Summer of Sam' is a well acted, well directed but poorly written film about
the hellish summer of 1977. I turned 12 in 1977 and have some vivid
memories about that year. Entertainment losses were astonishing that year.
The world parted ways with Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and
Bing Crosby. The biggest pop culture phenomenon of the 20th century, 'Star
Wars', was born on film and there was so much snow that fell where I live
that nearby Buffalo, New York was shipping much of it to Florida in train
boxcars and a local t.v. station in Buffalo created and sold a board game
based on that weather blister called 'Blizzard of '77'. It was also the
year when a summertime horror story, that spanned over a year, was told in
New York City which serves only as a minor point in Lee's latest film when
it should have been the central focus of his story.
David Berkowitz, a man who claims Satan spoke to him through the mouth of a
big black dog and urged him to kill, went on a mass murder spree, attacking
at night and shooting young women with dark, shoulder length hair and even
attacking them most helplessly while sitting in their cars with a companion.
This would have been a fascinating story to tell because combining the
sympathy felt for Berkowitz's victims along with trying to find out what
made him do it and having debate among people who enjoyed such films as 'The
Silence of the Lambs', could have made 'Summer of Sam' a classic but I was
shocked to find out what the film does instead. It takes a handful of
crude, unmannered people and tries to tell a story nearly two and a half
hours long based on their domestic problems, sexual escapades, ignorance and
shallow approach to life. It's one of those movies that slips into enormous
tedium after the first half hour is up and you still have almost two full
hours to go!
Meet Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino).
They're a young married couple who have a problem. Vinny likes to play the
field. He cheats on Dionna with her own cousin and chases anything in a
skirt including his boss, a much older woman at a beauty salon. Vinny and
his pals hang out by dead end streets near the waterside, some dealing drugs
and there is always the "tough guy" factor where the guys are always getting
into scraps to see who is the toughest. A stand out member of the cast is
Adrien Brody ('The Thin Red Line') as Ritchie, a punk rocker wannabe who is
suspected by his friends later in the film as being the serial killer.
Other major members of the cast are Jennifer Esposito, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben
Gazzara and Bebe Neuwirth.
Strangely, I kept thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Boogie Nights' from
1997, another film set in the disco era where a group of similarly
unattractive characters appeared in an attractive film about the lives of a
group of adult film personalities and the porno business was used as a
metaphor. This film spanned a total of six years and gave the character's
lives focus as they progressed, matured and made choices affecting the rest
of their lives. This was an appealing story with excellent execution.
'Summer of Sam', as well acted and directed as it is puts one in mind of a
car lost on a belt way and going around and around in circles.. The film
goes around and around and when the final act is played out, you feel the
same way about its main personalities as when the film began. What little
progress there is is muffled by the fact that the murder plot is a throw
away and you're not exactly sure what the film's message is when it's all
said and done. It all looks like no one cares.
Visit FILM FOLLOW-UP by Walter Frith
Copyright © 2000 Walter Frith